With her glossy brown hair and big, brown eyes, I have to admit she is beautiful. But, as she leans towards me, I notice her breath is a bit whiffy - someone clearly had fish for breakfast. And then there's a flipper on my side and here it comes: the left half of my face is engulfed in whiskers and wetness. The click of the camera and it's over. I've been kissed by a seal and I can't stop smiling.
I'm here at Sea Lion Point, at Dubai's Aquaventure, taking part in one of the water park's newest attractions, the Fur Seal Discovery program, which launched in mid-May and allows visitors to interact with one of the park's resident South African fur seals. It's all part of Atlantis, the landmark resort on the tip of the massive artificial island, The Palm.
The resort is inspired by the myth of the lost city of Atlantis and it's colourful, fun and pleasingly over the top - which is to say, utterly Dubai. The lobby alone combines an intricate 10m sculpture comprising 3000 individually blown, brightly coloured pieces of glass with eight handpainted murals depicting ancient mythology, plus intricately designed pillars, gleaming marble flooring and massive windows looking out over the resort, The Palm and the city beyond.
Arriving at the resort, I'm met by Maraika van Wessem, a Melbourne native who handles the resort's public relations, for a tour of some of the highlights. Despite the grandeur, it's a family-friendly place - the sound of children laughing and chattering echoes through the public areas - and there are well-equipped kids' and teens' clubs with a rock-climbing wall, movie theatre, computer and gaming area, and the like. Younger guests can take part in everything from arts and crafts and cooking classes to scuba-diving lessons and programs for budding scientists.
We come to a massive viewing panel looking into Ambassador Lagoon, an 11-million-litre aquarium which continues the "lost city" theme. There are two Underwater Suites which look directly into the tank, and guests can snorkel or dive in its waters, or feed the stingrays by hand. There's also the Lost Chambers Aquarium, with 21 displays, and in total the resort is home to some 65,000 fish and sea creatures of more than 250 species. A dedicated staff of 50 ensure their wellbeing.
Maraika points out a few of the 21 restaurants on site - including a branch of London's Michelin- starred Locanda Locatelli and Seafire, a steakhouse supplied by the resort's very own cattle station in Queensland - before we head "backstage" for a look behind the scenes. There's the "fish restaurant", where the sea creatures' food is prepared, and a nursery where I see a tank of baby jellyfish - very difficult to breed in captivity, apparently - along with some infant guitar sharks and marble rays, and a collection of newborn seahorses no more than half a centimetre in length. In the hospital, a moray eel is recovering from an injury.
A little later, I'm left to my own devices to enjoy Aquaventure. Covering some 17ha, the park promises slides and rides to suit all ages and all levels of adventurousness. It is first thing, just after opening, which strikes me as a good time to come - quiet, without lines for the rides. I leave my things on a lounger by the shallow central pool and head off to try one of the water park's most distinctive rides, the Shark Attack.
Climbing the Tower of Neptune, the starting point for a number of rides, I'm greeted by a sign warning that the Shark Attack is to be avoided by people with a fear of heights, fast speeds, enclosed spaces, the dark and exposure to sharks. I tick pretty much all of these boxes but resolve to be brave. The attendant launches me into the tunnel and I'm sloshed about in the claustrophobic darkness, clinging to the sides of my plastic ring, an involuntary whimper escaping my lips. Finally, there's light at the end of the tunnel and I'm spat out into a tube passing through the shark tank. It's a little fogged up from the humidity but I can see the fish and rays on the other side, and the looming shapes of the sharks. It is not, I'm pleased to report, as scary as I'd imagined.
I try some more rides, including the 1.6km loop of The Rapids, but run out of time to visit one of the park's newest attractions, the Tower of Poseidon, which offers a number of slides plus the Middle East's longest zip-line circuit. I've a date with a fur seal and I don't want to keep her waiting.
At Sea Lion Point, I struggle into a wetsuit before I and the other participants, an English family of three, are led into the enclosure, the pervasive smell of fish in the air. Despite the name Sea Lion Point, today we'll be interacting with a South African fur seal named Swan. "Be gentle with her - she's a lady and we are going into her home," the instructor advises as we enter the clear, surprisingly chilly water.
Here we're introduced to Swan, who waves a flipper by way of greeting, as directed by her trainer. The four of us line up and, as she swims past, we run our hands along her smooth, slightly oily fur. Swan then sprawls on the tiles by the side of the pool, allowing us to get a better look at her smooth front flippers and the vestigial nails on her hind flippers.
She runs through a series of other tricks - everything from "speaking" on command (a mighty barking burp) to demonstrating the power of her solid, muscular build by jumping on to a rock and doing a handstand on her flippers. She runs through a series of leaps and twirls in the water, and shows us the difference between how seals and fur seals move on land - as the instructor explains, fur seals and sea lions have wing-like foreflippers, and are quite distinct from regular seals.
Swan, the instructor and the trainer have a nice little routine going and she's rewarded regularly with snacks of fish and squid. There are numerous opportunities to interact with her and have our photo taken together but it's all really an entree to the main event: the kiss.
I'm the first to be kissed by Swan and as I return to the edge of the pool to watch the others, I can't keep the grin off my face. The others are the same - an initial look of apprehension replaced by pure elation, all captured on camera by the official photographer. Forget about drugs or exercise or a nice cup of tea, it seems we've found the ultimate mood booster: a big, wet, whiskery smooch from a friendly fur seal.
Gemma Nisbet visited Dubai as a guest of Emirates airline and Dubai Tourism.
The Sea Lion Discovery program at Atlantis The Palm costs from AED425 ($124), with discounts for resort guests. The price includes all-day access to Aquaventure Waterpark and 25 per cent off same-day admission to the Lost Chambers Aquarium. atlantisthepalm.com.
Atlantis The Palm has a number of specials on accommodation, including discounted stays from AED1335 per night from November 1-December 19, including free wi-fi and unlimited access to Lost Chambers Aquarium and Aquaventure Waterpark, for bookings before August 31.
Emirates has multiple daily flights from Perth to Dubai. From Dubai, travellers can connect with the airline's network of more than 140 destinations. emirates.com or 1300 303 777.
For more, go to definitelydubai.com.